by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.
© June 6, 2009
A concerned daughter wrote:
My mother, who is 83, has hearing loss and lives alone in an apartment in a quiet area. My brother lives next door. She has been hearing phantom music for some years now, and we cannot get her to accept that it is all in her head. We have taken her to several doctors for help, but they don’t seem like they want to be bothered. She has had tests which have come back fine, so she refuses to believe that it is her.
She is accusing the woman that lives next door to my brother of playing music all day. Then she is accusing my brother of continuing playing the same music when he gets home from work and all night long.
We have had people go over to her place to listen, and when they tell her they don’t hear anything, she insists that they are all crazy. We have tried everything we can to convince her that she is the only one hearing the music, and that she has MES [Musical Ear Syndrome]. She refuses to accept it. Do you know of someone we can talk to, or some place we can take tor to that will help us convince her of her problem? We are at the end of our rope and need help!
I understand. Doctor’s don’t seem to be of much help, mostly, I think, because they know nothing about Musical Ear Syndrome (MES). As a result, they don’t have a clue how to treat it—so give you the brush-off.
Unfortunately, I’m not aware of any doctor or facility that is truly knowledgeable about MES and hearing loss, and thus is qualified to help your mom.
The best information available on MES (at least in my opinion, and I’m a wee bit biased because I wrote it) is the article “Musical Ear Syndrome—The Phantom Voices, Ethereal Music & Other Spooky Sounds Many Hard of Hearing People Secretly Experience“, and my book on the subject “Phantom Voices, Ethereal Music & Other Spooky Sounds“.
Now let’s look at your mom’s situation. Blaming the neighbors for the phantom music she is hearing is unfortunately, a common tactic for those that experience MES and refuse to admit these sounds are phantom. I hear such complaints quite often. Since this phantom music often appears to have directionality, your mom “KNOWS” it is coming from the room next door (as opposed to the one across the hall, or on the other side of the street, etc.) This gives an added layer of reality to these phantom sounds, which makes it so much more difficult for her to accept that these sounds are all in her head.
Some people also “feel” their phantom music—they can actually “feel” the room or floor vibrating in time to the music. When you “hear” music, can tell exactly from which direction it is coming, and can “feel” the beat, can you blame someone for refusing to accept that the music is phantom? That’s how “real” it is to them.
From time to time, I both “hear” and “feel” certain phantom sounds so I know just how eerily real these sensations truly are. This is quite a hurdle to overcome, and is one of the problems your mom has to deal with.
When she hears the phantom music so loud and clear, it is hard for her to accept that other people can’t hear the same music she is hearing. As you explained, “We have also had people go over to her place to listen and when they tell her they don’t hear anything, she insists that they are all crazy.”
Some people even insist that these “listeners” are hard of hearing themselves, and that is why they can’t hear the music. Your mom says they are crazy instead.
You are doing the right things in getting others to listen and corroborate what you already have found out, that there isn’t any real music playing.
In my experience, a number of people in their 80s and older refuse to accept this. (People in their 60s and 70s are much more willing to accept a hearing person’s word that the music is phantom.) However, when people reach their 80s and 90s often it is like talking to a brick wall. You just can’t seem to get through to them as is the case with your mom even though they are not crazy.
I think the real underlying problem is that to her, if a person hears “voices” or music, they are crazy. That is her only point of reference, and she has held this deeply-rooted belief all her life. Therefore, if she admits that what she hears is all in her head, then she is admitting, at the same time, that she, herself, is crazy. Although she may secretly believe that she IS going crazy, she will never admit it to anyone else. Therefore, the only alternative she has (from her perspective) is to believe that the sounds are indeed real, and therefore, someone or something is causing them.
If she would listen and try to understand, you can explain that there are not one, but two kinds of phantom sounds—the kind she knows about (and fears) where the person has a mental problem, and the other kind, which we call MES (and which she has not heard anything about) that happens to many hard of hearing people who are perfectly sane (but who are, at times, completely fooled by the activity going on in the auditory circuits of their brains). This will be a new concept for her, and some elderly people have a most difficult time grasping such new concepts. Continue to drill it into her that it is her ears (actually the auditory circuits in her brain) that are not working properly, and that she is not crazy (or whatever favorite term she uses).
In addition, many elderly people have very short memory spans for current events, so what you explain to them today, they have forgotten by tomorrow. Thus each day you may need to explain over again about the phantom music.
Another important aspect of this problem is dealing with the supposed perpetrators of the “music”. What happens is the person with MES begins to think very badly towards the neighbor who is so “mean” and “inconsiderate” as to play this loud music all night long just so they can’t sleep.
The person with MES may knock on their neighbor’s door at 3 o’clock in the morning and demand they turn the music off. They may complain to the other neighbors about the “bad” neighbor, refuse to talk to them, or snub them in the dining room.
By the same token, the “bad” neighbor gets tired of all the false accusations and gossip about them and snubs her “crazy” neighbor.
Make no mistake, there are often very real interpersonal problems between those involved. Thus, you need to try to defuse this situation as much as possible. Explain to the “bad” neighbor what is going on, and how MES sounds seem so real and have direction so that they are being blamed for something this is not their fault at all.
When the neighbors and management understand what is going on, they can make allowances for her, and hopefully keep the situation from escalating.